This is something that I have talk about a bit before but not quite enough. I’m sure all of you have experienced this at some point or other, the sheer elation you feel when you finally begin to connect with a teacher on a really strong level. It happened for me quite early on in Primary School. I was lucky enough to have a teacher to really pushed us all to achieve our best. Again in Secondary School I got to work with a wide variety of teachers, all of them so passionate about their chosen fields. Though it has only been in the last few days that the importance of all of this has really sunk in.
To show you what I mean I have to take you back to last Friday evening. Our last assignment of the day was a Lemon Meringue Pie, A bit of a challenge for even the most accomplished of amateur cooks. To say mine didn’t go too well would be a hilarious understatement. My shortcrust pastry was overcooked and too thin. My curd filling hadn’t set properly. It took me three goes to get my Italian meringue to come together and not look like the bastardised combination of Marshmallow Fluff and Toothpaste. This all culminated in me overcooking the meringue peaks. Hence why I have a lovely photo of the beginning of the dish …
…and nothing of the end product.
I felt dejected. I have never really been any good at desserts but if I couldn’t get one of these right in my first week maybe I was wrong about the course. Maybe it wouldn’t work. Yes it is a tough dish, but I am supposed to be a professional now. I left my dish on the presentation table to be graded and went about cleaning my station. A while later Natasha, our resident guru in all things pastry, gave me my marks. She told me everything I already knew about the dish. Pastry overcooked. Presentation needs work. Generally just sloppy and not what they were looking for. She may not have said that last part but I certainly felt it.
I wanted to argue. To give excuses. “The dog ate my rolling pin” seemed genuinely viable for a few moments. In the end I had to just face it, my dish was sub-standard. It dawned on me that this was the beginning of my relentless pursuit of perfection. Most great cooks can tell you the moment they realised that they had to achieve perfection or nothing else. No substitute. The best, or failure. Pretty big stakes right? My dish was fine, acceptable. Good, even. Far though, from perfect.
I came in Monday morning a new cook. Chomping at the bit to be let into the kitchens and start milling through my mise en place. Thai Red Curry? Done! Tom Kha Gai? (A Thai coconut based soup) also done! Finishing up a bit ahead of the group, one of the tutors took me aside to take me through another dish, the Phad Thai you see above. All before lunch. I learned more in those few hours than I could have in weeks of practicing things at home. On Friday I was annoyed at being graded my someone who clearly knew what they were talking about. Now I realised how important this is. To have someone there to lead you. To guide you. to help you when you need it. To leave you alone when you need to be left alone.
“I can make a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honour, and A- feel like a slap in the face.”
That’s the balance. It’s understanding people and how to get the best from them. All I can say is that the team in Cooks Academy have this in spades.
~ Mark O’Brien